My favourite feminist, Clementine Ford, wrote this week about her experiences giving birth to her first child. I’m sorry to have to admit I was deeply disappointed with the way she framed her birthing decisions, and the sanctimonious judgement and culture of expert-doctor-mistrust which makes these decisions for all women, more difficult.
It’s worth describing my own experiences in this area. I am a twin and was born via caesarean, which is the safest way to deliver twins. When I gave birth to my daughter just over a year ago, I went into labour two and a half weeks early and, with the help of the blessed relief of an epidural, delivered my daughter after 16 hours of labour. My twin sister had her first baby 10 weeks before I gave birth. She was induced two days after her due date, and after 12 hours in labour, her obstetrician judged that the labour wasn’t progressing because her son’s head was too big to pass through her birth canal. So she was rushed into the operating suite and had an emergency caesarean. It did occur to us all that my sister and her baby would likely have contributed to the huge statistics of maternal and infant mortality had they been in the same circumstances 100 years ago. But of course, my twin sister and I might not have been alive ourselves had we not been born via caesarean 35 years ago. So all in all, the wonders of modern medicine get a big round of applause in our family.
What really upset me about Clementine’s description of her decision to reject an obstetrician’s advice to be induced soon after her due date, and instead to go into hospital on her own terms 36 hours after her water broke at 43 weeks, is that she is upholding a cultural expectation through her public telling of this story, that there is something wrong with ‘giving in’ to the advice of doctors. And that anything other than a natural birth is a failure.
To put it frankly, it is incredibly dangerous to have a child at 43 weeks. As an obstetrician commented below Clementine’s post, much more calmly than I feel able, the statistics, the science, is clear about this risk. One in 300 babies born at 43 weeks (3 weeks after their due date) are stillborn. So when a doctor advises that a woman who has seen her due date come and go consider an induction, it’s not because the doctor is trying to take away the woman’s right to choose the circumstances of her birth, it’s not because the doctor is trying to dictate the terms of the birth in order to advantage the doctor in some way, it’s not because they want to bully the woman by using words like ‘stillborn’ or force the woman to not have the natural birth experience they dreamed of having. The doctor advises an induction to minimise the risk of the baby not surviving. The doctor is doing their job to deliver a baby safely. This job, to again be blunt, is far more important than looking after the feelings of the mother. Full stop.
I find it hard to believe women in modern society, where we have so much scientific advantage over previous generations, who played Russian roulette during childbirth, aren’t more grateful for the advice and assistance they get from doctors. In fact, rather than be grateful, many women seem to instead mistrust the doctor’s advice and claim they, as the intuitive mother, know best. The anti-vax movement is caused by this exact same phenomena. Mother knows best. Intuition and ‘feels’, and an obsession with exerting full control over every medical decision, ahead of expert provided medical fact.
So back to cultural expectations. Why did Clementine choose not to be induced? Is it because she judges a natural birth as superior? Is it because she judges a woman who gives birth naturally to have done a better job of the birthing process? I find it hard to see anything else in her words, which are imbued with a sense of self-righteous post-justification of her decisions, and martyrdom in claiming to have waited for things to occur naturally, even if that made her difficult wait longer and harder.
The thing is, I’ve seen this attitude so many times before. I’ve seen the way society looks disappointed when mothers tell the story of ‘giving in’ to an emergency caesarean, or being embarrassed to admit they elected to have a caesarean because it was the safest way for them to give birth. I’ve heard about the birth plans that women make, to do it all naturally, to be at home, in water, and to not take drugs, which, whether they mean to or not, are automatic judgements of ‘weak’ women who have gone before them and had every drug the hospital offered to get rid of that god-damn-pain thank you very much. I remember the women in my pregnancy aqua-aerobics class who proudly announced they’d achieved their goal of a VBAC – a vaginal birth after caesarean. So they had to ‘give in’ the first time, but the second time, they did it naturally, and that apparently earns them even more bragging points than a natural attempt first time round.
This behaviour by mothers is the Mobius-loop of society judging mothers. Clementine’s piece surely wasn’t meant to judge, but it backs up the judgement, a judgement which in turn makes it hard for women to make smart, expert-informed decisions about the safest way to deliver their child.
The thing is, this judgement around childbirth is just the start of a judging journey for mothers which continues into every facet of parenthood. This judgement, the expectations of perfection in all things parenting, the ‘right’ way to do things, has a negative impact on a new mother’s confidence, security, faith in her own decisions, and her overall mental health at a time in her life when she is particularly vulnerable. From the breast-is-best breastfeeding brigade, to the organic foods only army, to cloth nappies versus disposable, to unpasteurized milk, to whether you choose childcare and a job over mother-of-earth stay-at-home sanctimonious ‘mamma bear’. Choose the wrong decision and the judgers’ judge you to have failed.
There is already enough judgement out there thanks Clementine, and I’m so disappointed you’ve added to it from your privileged position of popular feminist commentator. I wish you the best of luck with motherhood, which, as I’m finding after a year is so much more than the challenges of labour. All I ask of society is to celebrate childbirth, however it happens, and to minimise the risk of things going horribly wrong. I don’t think that’s too much to ask, is it?